ZoneModa Journal. Vol.12 n.1 (2022)
ISSN 2611-0563

Fashion Exhibitions: The Power of Communication

Valerie SteeleThe Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (United States)

She is director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has organized over two dozen exhibitions since 1997. She is also the author or editor of more than 25 books, some of which have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. In addition, she is founder and editor in chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal in Fashion Studies.  Dr. Steele has been instrumental in creating the modern field of fashion studies and raising awareness of fashion’s cultural significance.

Published: 2022-07-11


Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, describes curatorial strategies for communicating visually within the context of the fashion exhibition. Focusing on her exhibition, Gothic: Dark Glamour, she explains how she used objects and sets to convey an atmosphere and tell a story. She then interviews three other curators. Patricia Mears, deputy director of MFIT, describes her process (“I typically start an exhibition by asking two questions: how and why?”) curating exhibitions, such as Madame Grès, Ivy Style, Expedition, and Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse. Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories, describes her innovative exhibition, Fairy Tale Fashion: “Sleeping Beauty was the tale that started me on my research journey… She was asleep for 100 years and when the prince wakes her up he thinks, ‘She’s so beautiful, but her clothing is like something my grandmother would have worn’.” Finally, Emma McClendon, former associate curator of costume, emphasizes relevance and real-world issues: “With my exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, I really had a message: that fashion has always had a problematic relationship with the female body.”

Keywords: Communications; Exhibitions; Fashion; Objects; Strategies.

In 1997, after writing four books on the history of fashion, I was appointed chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Although I immediately realized that curating an exhibition is very different than writing a book, it took me years to grasp how best communicate effectively in visual terms. Obviously, museum exhibitions feature both visual and verbal modes of communication: Words play an essential role in exhibition titles, wall text, and object labels. However, many visitors ignore written texts, and simply look at the objects on display. For a writer, this can be traumatic!

Fortunately, curators, exhibition designers, and other museum professionals have developed a variety of ways to communicate visually with objects and environments. After deciding on the narrative, the first issue for a curator is the choice of objects with which to tell the story. Then the objects must be organized within the gallery space. If you are displaying items of dress, will these be shown on mannequins (and if so, which kind?), on dress forms, or in some other way? Will you divide space with walls, platforms, cases,…? At the most basic level, dressed mannequins can be positioned in such a way that they seem to “talk” to each other, which leads museum visitors to compare the mannequins’ dress.

To communicate, you need to get visitors to look at certain things and then think about them. In this essay, I will explore how several curators have developed their ideas for exhibitions and how they tried to communicate these ideas through the medium of the fashion exhibition. I will begin with my own experiences, and go on to interview three of my colleagues: Patricia Mears, Colleen Hill, and Emma McClendon.

Looking back, I think that my first fully successful exhibition was Gothic: Dark Glamour (2009). Earlier exhibitions, such as London Fashion (2001) and The Corset: Fashioning the Body (2000), had been intelligent and even beautiful, but I had not truly understood how to marshal an array of visual effects to convey the ideas that I wanted to communicate. Gothic was influenced, of course, by Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, the pioneering exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which addressed the influences that flowed from subcultural or street styles to high fashion. Even more influential, however, was Judith Clark’s Malign Muses: When Fashion Turns Back. For whereas the visual structure of Streetstyle was fairly simple, like most fashion exhibitions, Malign Muses employed architecture and metaphor to convey ideas about how fashion makes tiger’s leaps into the past.

When I returned from the exhibition opening in Antwerp, I called a full-staff meeting to announce a new exhibition paradigm: Henceforth, the mise-en-scène would play a much more important role. As it happened, my next scheduled exhibition was Gothic: Dark Glamour, which set out to explore a darkly romantic approach to both high fashion and subcultural style. Since goth style is nothing if not theatrical, it seemed like a promising subject for a new approach. I began doing research as I always do, looking at the cultural history of the idea and the word “gothic.”

Like “decadence,” “gothic” is an epithet with a strange history, evoking images of death, destruction, and decay. The term “gothic” is sometimes merely description: Gothic Cathedrals, for example, appeared in Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages and had a distinctive architectural style that was quite different from the classicizing architecture of Italy. But the term usually carried negative connotations, implying that something was dark, barbarous, and macabre. There were studies of the gothic in literature, art, and cinema, but relatively little had been written at that time on gothic fashion.

As a subcultural style, goth developed out of punk, and was popularly associated with black-clad teenagers who listened to bands like Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. But there were also a number of high fashion designers who gravitated toward the melancholy and macabre. Although Streetstyle had strongly implied that fashion designers merely appropriated subcultural styles, I doubted whether designers like Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, Olivier Theyskens, and Yohji Yamamoto were copying goth kids. We did, however, include a vignette of a goth club (like the Batcave) filled with a variety of subgenres of goth style from its classic gothic punk version through cybergoth to gothic Lolita.

As I did research into the idea of the gothic, its history and iconography came into focus. For example, the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages became associated with the so-called Dark Ages. Eighteenth-century enthusiasts like Horace Walpole created faux Gothic ruins. For the exhibition, I came up with the idea of using the silhouette of Gothic building in ruins which framed a gown inspired by witchcraft by Alexander McQueen and another gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior haute couture embellished with the image of the Marquis de Sade that evoked both the Terror (during the French Revolution) and the literature of terror.

Figure 1: Installation view of Gothic: Dark Glamour, The Museum at FIT, 2008. Credit: Copyright The Museum at FIT

The exhibition design became more like storytelling. A mannequin wearing a vampirish dress by Thierry Mugler stepped out from a vertical coffin — an image that I stole from a window display by Simon Doonan — while nearby a blood red dress by Eiko Ishioka from Bram Stoker’s Dracula emphasized the literary and cinematic imagery that informed gothic style. My idea here was to counter the assumption that fashion designers simply rip off subcultural styles. While this certainly can be true, in the case of gothic fashion, I saw similarities between the sources referenced by goth kids and those beloved by fashion professionals. These included stories of vampires and other revenants, horror films, the black of darkness and night, the uncanny imagery of dreams and nightmares. On one wall of the exhibition we projected the vision of a full moon disappearing behind moving clouds.

I wanted to work with the art director Simon Costin, who had collaborated on many of McQueen’s fashion shows, and who had a longstanding fascination with witchcraft. I asked him to design an architectural set inspired by the idea of madness and paranoia as in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He created a set with towering walls and sharp angles, isolating and dwarfing the individual mannequins. Another iconic gothic setting is the laboratory within which monsters are created. Drawing on the iconography of horror films, Costin created a suitably creepy laboratory with rubber walls. The fashion monsters on display included techno-creations made of metal with glass vials, as well as a leather corset by McQueen in the shape of a female torso mutilated with Frankenstein stitches.

Figure 2: Installation view of Gothic: Dark Glamour, The Museum at FIT, 2008. Credit: Copyright The Museum at FIT

The connections between fashion and death were evoked in several sections of the exhibition. There was a vignette featuring a coffin framed by mannequins in High Victorian mourning gowns — one of which was loaned by a goth girl who liked to wear it to graveyards on Halloween. Another vignette focused on the many shades of black used in fashion with the mannequins in front of a hand-painted theater backdrop to emphasize the deliberate artificiality of gothic style. Leopardi’s dialogue between Fashion and Death was the inspiration for a section devoted to uncanny styles that evoked the undead nature of fashion.

Subsequent exhibitions built on the discoveries we made with Gothic: Dark Glamour. My obsession with Japanese fashion, for example, took on a geographic form with the exhibition, Japan Fashion Now, divided into spaces corresponding to specific Tokyo neighborhoods. (Harajuku is only the best-known of Tokyo’s many fashion neighborhoods.) Photographs we took in Tokyo were greatly enlarged and then drained of color to evoke a Bladerunner-inspired city of the future.

For another exhibition, Daphne Guinness, we created a life-size moving “hologram” of Daphne wearing a glittering McQueen catsuit, putting on her diamond jewelry. Of course it was not literally a hologram, since we did not point two lasers at Daphne, but rather two cameras, making what is called in the theater “Pepper’s Ghost.” Its production took an entire day, but, hanging above the exhibition, it provided an incredible centerpiece. Meanwhile, on the platforms below the hologram, Daphne personally styled every ensemble and decorated each one with her jewelry — although I had to insist on “No real diamonds!”

My fellow curators also developed a variety of different ways to communicate through the medium of the fashion exhibition. Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT, has organized many exhibitions, at the Brooklyn Museum, The Museum at FIT, and elsewhere, but here she chose to analyze four that she organized at MFIT: Madame Grès, Sphinx of Fashion; Ivy Style; Expedition: Fashion from the Extremes; and Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse.

“My exhibitions start with very simple questions,” says Patricia Mears. “The first big exhibition that I did at MFIT was Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion, which grew out of my master’s thesis. I remember asking: ‘Why do people keep labeling Madame Grès a classicist?’ as though her clothes never changed. So, my next question was: How did her work evolve? Her classical dresses from the 1930s were different from those of the 1950s and different from those of the 1960s and 1970s. Developments in her classical style were one thread. But there was a quantum leap in her work after she won a Ford Foundation grant and went to India in the late 1950s. There, she studied the sari, and non-western garments began to inspire her. That was a second stylistic development to explore.

Ivy Style was not the first menswear show. Richard Martin [former Director of what was then called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT] curated Jocks and Nerds in the late 1980s. That was a very important show. But, Ivy came before Artist, Rebel, Dandy at the Rhode Island School of Design and Reigning Men at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s not that I spearheaded the craze for exhibitions of men’s clothing. I think it was feeling in the air.

But I really give Richard Martin credit because he was collecting menswear seriously and we have fabulous early 20th century Brooks Brothers, much better than the company’s own archives. We also have wonderful things by J Press and companies like Chipp, including that spectacular, bright madras jacket. I haven’t seen too many things like that in other collections. So, I had a very good platform on which to build the show.

“All I wanted was to look at something authentic, the idea of a style created by a community that was not interested in ‘fashion,’ per se. What inspired me actually was the fashion boom and its fallout. In the 1980s and 1990s, I had such an intense personal interest in fashion, I wanted to see every collection by the designers I admired. Then, things started to change. The death of Alexander McQueen, that really got to me when he committed suicide. He was so creative. That and John Galliano imploding. Fashion was too big for itself. And I think this is where my interest in chasing fashion waned.

“I found myself asking: What is style? Craft? I’ll give you an example. In Tokyo there is a tailor, Mr. Yamamoto. His company is called is called Caid. (I never did figure out why.) But he has a little shop in Aoyama, not far from the Noh theater. It’s a replica of something you would find circa 1960 in America. You walk up the stairs, and there are two men listening to jazz records on an old record player. One was in his 20s. He’s literally could have been wearing a Chipp jacket, circa 1963. And an older man who was wearing a perfect replica of a Brooks Brothers suit, circa 1950.

Caid produces copies of vintage Brooks Brothers. He searches for deadstock cotton, and certain types of woolens. He makes these lines for line copies of old Brooks Brothers stuff, including the ties! The only thing he wasn’t able to do was reproduce the shoes. It was wild. That excited me because these are equivalent to me of haute couture and counterculture styles. The people who wear these clothes want to step out of the mainstream world of fashion.

Figure 3: Installation view of Ivy Style, The Museum at FIT, 2012. Credit: Copyright The Museum at FIT

Young men used to develop their styles in a somewhat isolated way on campuses. Princeton in the 1920s, for example, had fads like raccoon coats. But also classic styles like wearing a tweed jacket with white tennis pants, mixing and matching active wear with proper men’s clothing. I found this fascinating. Leading menswear magazines came to the football games between Harvard and Yale to cover what the young guys were wearing. During the 1930s, Ivy style accounted for more than 50% of sales. Young men in college were very important consumers.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. For me, this is a fantasy. Again, I began asking how and why did Ivy style start? Unlike my other shows on couture and construction, Ivy had to show what a young man wore in his dorm, what he wore when he was crossing the quad to go to class. I learned that every campus had its own university shop. So, I said, I’ll create a mini college campus. We created a quad, we created a chemistry lab. And I will say that I was partly inspired by the Japanese publication Take Ivy, which was started by Mr. Ishizu, who was called the Ralph Lauren of Japan.

One of the things I learned was that sports were very important in collegiate life. The closest ivy league school was Princeton. I took Tommy Synnamon [a colleague] with me to one of their football games and he took wonderful photographs. And we blew them up, placing them all over the Special Exhibition Gallery. We also looked at vintage photographs and we created our version of a sporting room where everything from football to tennis clothing was put on view.

“This Ivy mise en scène with vintage Ivy clothes gave me a platform to bring in contemporary designers. I could continue to ask questions. How did Ralph Lauren build an empire based on this? And how did somebody like Thom Browne, who’s so hip and cool, invert and use this basic material and turn it into high fashion material?

“The concept for Expedition: Fashion at the Extremes originated when we were attending one of Joseph Altuzarra’s fashion shows, the one which featured his revival of the Korean War era fishtail parka. It looked very chic, but it didn’t immediately trigger any ideas in my mind. It was a slow process. But eventually I began to ask, how and why did parkas wind up in our wardrobes? Arctic and Himalayan dress cultures were among the last to be incorporated into fashion.

“That’s where Expedition came from, when I realized that there were different types of expedition environments: the arctic, mountains, deep sea, and outer space. The Museum of Natural History got a huge grant to preserve the few surviving funerary costumes from Russian Arctic peoples, and they generously loaned one, which was a star of the show. I juxtaposed it with fur and leather pieces by Yohji Yamamoto and Madame Grès. I wanted to create an Arctic backdrop for them. Our team at FIT was fabulous: they created icebergs and our great lighting designer, Eric Steding, did an Aurora Borealis.